[Originally published as a “Short Notice” in Film Quarterly, Summer 1974]
“The Marshal” (episode No. 6211 of The Rifleman TV series). I recently had the extraordinary experience of showing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to a University of Washington film class and then going home to discover an ancestor of sorts on television. Knowing that Peckinpah had worked on The Rifleman, among other shows, and noticing that Warren Oates and James Drury were listed in the cast of that evening’s rerun, I tuned in. The episode indeed proved to be a Peckinpah: teleplay, direction, and a co-credit for story. A crucial installment in the development of the series, it introduced regular-to-be Paul Fix as Micah Torrance, a once-renowned lawman who had managed to live long enough to take off his badgeâ€”but only by losing his nerve and taking to the bottle. Torrance comes to the attention of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and the town marshal, played by R.G. Armstrong (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett), and McCain sets about rehabilitating him by putting him to work on his ranch. About that time, Oates and brother Robert J. Wilke appear, hot on Torrance’s trail and determined to repay him for shooting them up in the line of duty some years previous. Drury, who played the least depraved of the Hammond boys in Ride the High Country, rides into town with them but pretends to only a loose affiliation; he affects a mellifluous manner and mocks their illiteracyâ€”they are clearly akin to such “damn drygulchin’ Southern trash” as the Hammonds and the Strother Martinâ€“L.Q. Jones types in later Peckinpahâ€”while targeting Marshal Armstrong’s niece for seduction. If Drury’s motivation is ever declared, I missed it; but at any rate he has soon shot and killed Armstrong, then enticed McCain into town with the news that Oates and Wilke did it. There is a concluding fight, McCain falls wounded after downing Wilke, and Torranceâ€”effectively if not actually one-armed like James Coburn’s Sam Potts in Major Dundeeâ€”manages to do for the others with a shotgun. The episode ends with McCain recuperating and Micah Torrance sporting the marshal’s badge he will wear throughout the rest of the series.
For Peckinpah aficionados, the show is a treasure trove. Characters, scenes, bits of business, some comparatively genteel redneck-peckerwood phrasing (“Don’t gravel me!”), all produce a ghostly sense of after-imageâ€”although, of course, it’s familiarity with later images that one brings to this early work. R.G. Armstrong has cautionary words about Drury for his niece that recall the same actor, as Ride the High Country‘s Joshua Knudsen, coming down on daughter Mariette Hartley with Biblical and incestuous fervor. Oates and Wilke start scrapping in a saloon, one throws a bottle at the other, and the sight of its contents splashed on the wall convinces both of them that, rather than fighting each other, they can have a much better time busting up the joint; recall Elder and Sylvus Hammond about to leap at each other’s throat during the brothel wedding celebration until an interloper belts one of them in the mouth and precipitates an immediate sibling rapprochement. Near the end Oates drops McCain and then runs into the street hollering “I got ‘im, Flory! I got the Rifleman fella!” and one flashes on Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones picking over the massacre victims in The Wild Bunch. He goes to his brother’s lair and finds him sitting in a corner staring out of dead eyes, like Jones after running into Heck Longtree’s bullet in Ride the High Country, and Oates all but chortles, “Why Flory, you ugly old thing, you went and gotch yourself kilt!”
Sam Peckinpah is scarcely the only director of importance to serve an apprenticeship in televisionâ€”or indeed to work there after achieving critical prominence (I am thinking of his 1967 Noon Wine with Jason Robards). It is fervently to be hoped that video Peckinpah and Siegel and Hitchcock will become available to film scholars and programmers on a direct-rental basis, as opposed to the hit-and-miss showcase of syndicated TV reruns.
Â© 1974 Richard T. Jameson